Restaurant Review: Cathedral Quarter gets taste of Middle Eastern promise
Buba, St Anne's Square, Belfast: Restaurateur Tony O'Neill's latest venture proves that veganism is now mainstream ... but some meat dishes could do with a spice upgrade
People can be divided into two groups. Those who love their food and those who don't. The most depressing conversation I can have is with the moron who regards food as fuel. "Don't know what you're on about, mate. Food's something to keep you going." Or: "Seriously, I don't know what all the fuss is about. All I need is a packet of cheese and onion, and I'm happy."
Those of us who love food find plenty to say about it. It is, for instance, the second most fun thing you can enjoy with someone else. Never mind that; entire economies and political systems are founded on it, political conflicts are resolved around it, national identities are wrapped up in it, and a rainbow of snobs, anti-snobs, democrats, farmers, posh chefs, burger flippers, soup kitchen and foodbank workers, white linen ironers, crystal glass polishers, dining room designers, kitchen appliance manufacturers and God knows how many thousands and millions of paying diners, munchers, picnickers, grazers, desk-sandwich makers and those on or below the poverty line who scrape enough nutrition together every day to survive, will tell you just how important food is.
Food should never be a shrug-of-the-shoulder after-thought and nor should the occasion of eating it be dismissed. Which is why places like Buba, the latest offering from one of Belfast's most reliable chefs and restaurateurs, Tony O'Neill, are important.
This time, Tony's in business with his partner, Andrea, which may account for the boldness and stylishness of the restaurant. It's a statement kind of place, albeit one which won't break the bank (prices are very reasonable). There is a real sense of occasion when you enter this corner of St Anne's Square, the pulsating heart of Belfast's quartier Latin. It's got a Middle Eastern vibe and funky lighting; if you've ever been to one of the excellent Comptoir Libanais chain, you'll recognise the mood, the artwork and the menus. It's not a copy, though. It's far more individualistic.
Vegans and vegetarians should rejoice because Buba is the clearest possible evidence that veganism is now mainstream. All that deep, rich hummus, baba ganoush and falafel, served with the lightest little flat breads is pretty convincing stuff. Who needs meat when these rich flavours and textures are so satisfying? Well, I do, actually. Thankfully, there are lamb dishes and picanha steak, barbecued chicken, grilled monkfish and prawns and plenty more.
Tony O'Neill has for a long time been overlooked as a brilliant chef. Perhaps this venture, which takes him into a more populist ground, means he's no longer under pressure to create greatness. Yet the greatness shines through. Some of the lamb dishes are a bit bland and the merguez sausages could probably be stoked up a bit more (playing it safe with new concepts in Belfast is a wise start, so let's hope the people are ready for a spice upgrade in the coming weeks), but the softness, gentleness and richness of the hummus and baba ganoush make up for this. Preserved lemons and chilli olives are tangy and tart, and the halloumi fries are firm, tender and light, rather than squeaky and rubbery, as tends to be the case elsewhere.
The small dishes and the presentations are all about sharing. In the case of people who barely know each other, nothing breaks the ice more efficiently than sharing opinions about the food you're eating from the same plate. For those who are close friends or relatives, the bonding is complete when everyone agrees that those duck cigars with cinnamon, raisins and capers sound weird, but are in fact outstanding.
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And then there are those cocktails. Moroccan iced tea and sazerac featured heavily at our table, and Buba even suggests a food pairing. Very happily, the wine cellar features the most trendy white of the moment: Pajzos from Hungary, made of dry furmint grapes and simply the most minerally, throat-gripping fun you're going to have with the hotter dishes.
Buba is a hit with the younger crowd, but if like me you're no longer in that category, don't let its youthful vigour put you off.
The service is warm, welcoming and they're keen to explain things. Give it a rattle. If you're not sure you like food, at least the company you eat with will help you find something you like.
St Anne's Square
Tel: 028 9568 0162
Falafel x 2: £10
Duck cigars x 2: £12
Chilli hummus: £3
Baba ganoush: £3
Flat bread garlic prawn: £6
Flat bread spiced lamb: £6
Vegan borek: £7
Veg tagine: £8
Buba slaw: £4
Persian potato hash: £4
Sazerac x 2: £20
Moroccan iced tea x 2: £18
Bottle Pajzos: £26